“Well if you’d like it in tabloid form, I am suspected by one Inspector Pollard of the C.I.D. of pinching the Maharajah’s rubies.”
It’s the perfect night for a jewel robbery. Passing unseen through the thick fog, Mr. Herridge easily breaks into the Hardway mansion and slips out again with the family’s famous diamond necklace. He is just congratulating himself on a job well done when handcuffs emerge from the darkness to close around his wrists.
But it’s no police officer who confiscates the diamonds. Scotland Yard detectives believe the Hardway diamonds are now in possession of a master criminal, a man of infinite ruthlessness and cunning. Lady Hardway’s brother Dick Penhampton descends into London’s underworld in search of the man known to police as the Funny Toff. His goal is to recover the diamonds. Soon enough he is fighting for his freedom and his life.
Miles Burton is one of the pseudonyms of the prolific Cecil Street, king of the humdrum mystery. Initially, the melodramatic thriller The Hardway Diamonds Mystery could not seem more different from the author’s standard fare. However, the story abruptly transforms into a humdrum detective novel (improving greatly in the process), then continues to switch back and forth between genres until its anticlimactic end. The thriller plot, though fairly predictable, is about as well done as it could be, considering that the character of Dick is involved. While the overall story has a certain naïve charm, Dick too often crosses the line between innocence and stupidity.
With a more consistently intelligent hero, this could be a snappy thriller, as Burton has a knack for eerie settings and a willingness to push the characters into truly dark situations. The opening chapter is the best one in the book, following “Pussy” Herridge through his night’s work with an air of genuine suspense.
Having reached the corner of the Square, Mr. Herridge turned sharply into Deben Street. And, as he did so, for the first time he felt a sudden sickening conviction that he was being followed. He could hear or see nothing, but his extraordinarily sharp perception told him that somewhere in the fog was another form, as silent as himself. He checked himself, and cowered back against the railings, trying to pierce the darkness. As he did so a dark shadow loomed suddenly into the circle of light cast by the lamp at the corner.
Mr. Herridge knew that his only chance of escaping observation lay in remaining motionless, and trusting to the shadow passing him by. But a sudden and unreasonable panic took possession of him. The shadow materialised into the figure of a man, his height and bulk magnified by the fog. And when this menacing figure turned the corner and came straight towards him, Mr. Herridge lost his head and made a bolt for it down Deben Street. But it was too late.
Dick, in his new guise as scapegrace Captain Blackwood, visits a dockside pub where he instantly connects with the Funny Toff’s gang and is hired for a crime more or less on the spot. Nothing about this arouses his suspicions. After a terrifying job interview in a deserted house, during which the voice of the Funny Toff interrogates him from behind a black curtain, Dick is given his first assignment in the countryside:
Was this the rendezvous ? There seemed to be no human being within miles; the river bank was utterly lonely, deserted, accursed. Dick stood still and listened. Not a sound came to his ears, all was still and desolate. A horror of great loneliness seized him, and it required all his power of will to restrain himself from rushing madly back along the road he had come, back to light and life, away from this dead water, and worse than dead marsh. For a moment he stood, trembling in every limb, until his courage conquered the horror that had enfolded him.
Soon after, literally in the middle of a chapter, Dick reveals a strangely detailed knowledge of the tidal patterns of the Thames, and the humdrum game is on…for a while, anyway. Throughout the rest of the story, he alternates between being remarkably credulous and displaying a keen insight into the criminal mind (not to mention lead mining and the properties of limestone). The scenes at Scotland Yard with Dick, assistant commissioner Sir Edric Conway, and Inspector Pollard brainstorming over the evidence are quite enjoyable, especially when the investigators begin to get on each other’s nerves as the case drags on.
I do wish that Dick’s girlfriend Alison played a larger part in the action. Early on, she begs to be included in his caper. Instead, she is left with nothing to do except shop, worry about Dick, and look after her father’s wardrobe. Even the romance with Dick is resolved in an almost offhand manner. That’s probably for the best, as relationships do not seem to be the author’s strong suit, but it leaves Alison without much of a role. This is even stranger given how underpopulated the story is; the number of characters with speaking parts can almost be counted on two hands.
Any reader who is not actually asleep will be able to identify the Funny Toff almost from the beginning, though there is still some interest in trying to unravel his various schemes. The most puzzling mystery here is how Dick manages to stay alive in spite of his own best efforts. The Hardway Diamonds Mystery features some nice detection and several chilling sequences but is marred by a protagonist who is too stupid to live.
The Spectator, July 26, 1930
…a good specimen of the master criminal story, whose rationalized criminal corporation defeats the police for years, is the terror of the underworld, and surrenders to the bright young man about town who tries his prentice hand on it in the intervals of hunting big game and proposing to the heroine. It does its best, of course, to give him a run for his money—throws him out of a train and tries to smother him in a deserted lead mine—but it is not a very long run, and, in spite of the fact that he falls into every trap, he falls out again…There is a certain competence about it, but it is a pity that the artist has given the whole thing away on the jacket.
The Hardway Diamonds Mystery is out of print but not as difficult to obtain as some other works by this author. Watch out for questionable print-on-demand versions.